Under the table
- 06-03-2013 02:51PM ET
Under the table
The West may have refused to arm the Syrian opposition, but in reality weapons have been flowing to the revolutionaries, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon at a police academy during fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and forces loyal to Al-Assad (photo: Reuters)
The recent Rome conference of the Friends of Syria group was disappointing for many Syrians, with the West reiterating its refusal to arm the opposition even if the gathering indicated a slight shift in the position of the US regarding the Syrian crisis as for the first time Washington pledged direct non-combat assistance to the armed opposition.
At the end of the conference, the US announced it would send $60 million to Syria’s political opposition in order to assist in providing basic services in areas liberated by the opposition. It also declared that it would send “non-combat” assistance to opposition military councils, while the EU declared it would amend the ban on weapons sales to Syria in order to send military equipment “with the aim of saving people’s lives.”
The opposition, which had intended to boycott the conference until Europe and the US promised the gathering would result in important decisions and tangible support, was unconvinced by the US’s financial pledge and promise of non-combat assistance.
It was not convinced either by the firm tone of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who once again told Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that he must step down because his “time has run out”. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime said that the conference “encourages terrorism.”
The Syrian opposition had wanted the West to send advanced weapons rather than money in order to alter the balance of power with the regime, or at least to allow the opposition to buy weapons despite the international ban. At a minimum, it wanted the West’s help to create safe corridors in Syria for delivering aid under chapter VII of the UN charter, but none of this took place.
The armed opposition is running low on weapons, while regime forces are using tanks, rockets and warplanes to attack it. The West has refused to send effective anti-aircraft rockets to stop lethal air raids by regime jets, and for months the armed opposition has suffered from low ammunition, anti-armour and anti-tank defenses, with the result that it has resorted to the black market, weapons sent by non-government Arab organisations, and anything it seizes from the regular army in Syria.
However, since earlier this year video footage has shown the revolutionaries using advanced weapons, including shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft Stinger rockets, powerful anti-tank M-79 rockets, American-made M-4 rifles and Austrian Stier rifles. As a result, the revolutionaries are now downing a regime warplane or helicopter nearly every day.
The Washington Post has reported that another shipment of advanced and heavy weapons reached revolutionaries in recent weeks across the border from Jordan to Deraa in southern Syria. It added that these weapons could tip the scales in favour of the revolutionaries, and that although the US Obama administrations still refuses to directly arm the revolutionaries, it has provided intelligence support to countries that arm them.
The New York Times meanwhile quoted US officials as confirming that Washington was training Syrian opposition fighters at an unnamed base, meaning that the US is becoming involved in the Syrian conflict.
There are many theories about the source of the new weapons used by the Syrian revolutionaries since they are not readily available on the black market and the Syrian army does not possess them. Some observers have suggested that the weapons come from Croatia, while others believe they are from the Gulf states that are allied with the opposition, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while others argue they are part of the arsenal of the former Libyan revolutionaries.
The US has said that it will not arm the opposition with advanced weapons, but this does not mean it will not ignore the passage of weapons into Syria. Meanwhile, Arab and regional states neighbouring Syria are not bound by the US and European ban on sending weapons to Syria, whether to the regime or the armed opposition, though anyone who is supplying weapons to Syria will not admit it, at least not for now.
“The announcement by the Friends of Syria that it does not publicly support arming the opposition extends the duration of the crisis,” Mohieddin Al-Lazkani, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“It also gives the Russians more opportunities to tamper with the fate of the Syrian people.”
Nonetheless, Al-Lazkani praised Washington’s position for “being more progressive. The Americans of course will not intervene militarily, but they will also not stop others from intervening,” he said, adding that “the Americans might seek to create a political opposition close to combat brigades inside Syria because they realise there is no value to any policy without support from the combat groups.”
A leading member of the opposition told the Weekly that the US was “implementing a strategy that could lead to arming the revolutionaries soon,” adding that the US had promised other countries that it would “work together to organise all the armed Syrian groups according to an entirely new strategy, with the aim of regulating them and finding a joint leadership to ensure that the weapons issue doesn’t lead to chaos.”
“The US has succeeded in unifying the two main groups of the armed units, and it is working on three other groups to accomplish the same end quickly and efficiently.”
“The US is cooperating with Saudi Arabia in implementing this strategy because Riyadh can influence Salafist and jihadist combat groups and help contain them. Weapons are likely to flow generously to the bloc the US is preparing, which includes 80 per cent of the armed opposition, without waiting for any international resolutions.”
Western diplomats also revealed the existence of “operations rooms” including European (Germany, the UK and France) and Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), along with Turkey and the US. One operations room was in Turkey and the other was in Jordan, they said, meaning that experts from these countries can consult regularly and provide the revolutionaries in Syria with critical logistical and intelligence data.
Over the past year, defections from the Syrian army have increased after the regime began using its entire military machine to suppress the revolution. Some sources estimate the number of armed groups across the spectrum to include 200,000-300,000 fighters, about 70 per cent of them civilians affected by the regime’s war against them.
A few months ago, thousands of defectors from the army formed five military councils to regulate armed operations and prevent chaos spreading. The aim was to link up the revolutionary forces with the political representation in order to stabilise ties between political and military actors.
Sources from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) assert that advanced weapons have reached revolutionaries through Turkey in the north and Jordan in the south, but that these weapons have been insufficient to end the conflict with the regime.
SNC member Mohamed Sarmini said Turkey and the US had given some advanced weapons to the armed opposition inside Syria but not enough. Arab officials and opposition leaders revealed that heavy weaponry had reached “moderate” armed opposition brigades.
Syrian revolutionaries say that they have been receiving weapons and money from abroad, but at a price. The cost of arms has been promised reconstruction contracts in Syria, they say, which they have been asked to grant to friendly countries in advance of the fall of the Syrian regime.
It is critical that advanced weapons arriving from Turkey and Jordan are not handled as they have been in the past, when a shipment of 14 Stinger rockets was found in Turkey in July. When the Turkish authorities were informed, they blocked the shipment from reaching the Syrian revolutionaries under the pretext that the weapons should not be allowed to reach extremists or jihadists.
It is clear that the US has thus far allowed only defensive weapons to pass through and not offensive ones in order to help defend sites controlled by the revolutionaries. But these weapons have not prevented the regime from attacking or given the FSA the ability to change the balance of power.
There are many reasons why Washington may have changed its position on arming the Syrian opposition. There has been pressure from Europe on the US administration to transition from humanitarian aid to weapons, as well as domestic US pressure that argues the crisis cannot be resolved without arming the opposition.
This position was previously supported by former US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but the White House has rejected their arguments.
Observers believe that the US administration is at the point of changing its position on arming the Syrian opposition, but that it will take time to convince it to take further steps that will change the balance of power.
The US wants a cohesive leadership structure for the armed opposition that will have central control of the weapons and will rein in Islamist radicals, though this may be a difficult mission to achieve in the immediate future